Lali (1898–1954) and Freddy Horstmann (1879–1947) were a privileged German couple, aesthetes who in the 1930s wished to live without taking any notice of Hitler and Nazism. Conspiracy against Hitler was not for them. At any point in the Nazi period, they could have left the country and sought safety abroad. Instead, for reasons that seemed sound to them, they stayed, consoling themselves with the thought that the tyranny would soon pass, as tyrannies do. This misjudgment was fatal. One of the profound themes of classical tragedy is that those who make wrong decisions will have to pay for them, being authors of their own misfortune. Written directly, without art or pretension, Nothing for Tears, Lali’s one and only book (1953, republished 2000), is testimony to a disastrous moment in the history of Europe, and, more than that, it has the same sort of truthfulness about the human condition as an Aeschylus play.

Lali was the daughter of Paul von Schwabach, a banker ennobled for his services to the state. Originally Jewish, the family converted to Protestantism, with their hereditary Hebraism said to be the reason for Paul’s exclusion from a club for the Prussian aristocracy. It was in character that he always kept with him the writings of Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century German mystic, and it was equally in character that in 1926 the vivacious and cosmopolitan Lali had her portrait painted by Augustus John.

Freddy was twenty years older. He had inherited a fortune, a popular newspaper, and a country estate. In one of the opening paragraphs of Nothing for Tears, Lali ascribes to him a bundle of contradictory adjectives: obstinate, selfish, spoiled, generous, warm-hearted, and lovable, altogether obedient to “the rules of the Edwardian world” in which he had grown up. Harold Nicolson was Counsellor at the British Embassy in Berlin at a time when Freddy was head of the English department of the German Foreign Office. It took one diplomat to appreciate another. In a masterly introduction to Lali’s memoir, Nicolson described the way of life Freddy had created with such good taste and knowledge. His grand house in the center of Berlin had tapestries and heavy Turkish rugs, chandeliers of silver and crystal, snuff-boxes in cases, china figures, baroque mirrors, and examples of the best work of German and Austrian silversmiths:

The food was excellent, the guests chosen for their charm rather than for their official position, the discourse varied, and the physical and intellectual comfort carefully contrived. One had the impression that he planned his parties with amused ingenuity, combining disparities as cleverly as he would combine unusual flowers in a bowl. He was always the artist.

“None of [the Nazi leaders’] faces showed any spiritual quality, distinction or dignity,” and this led to “a sense of horrified surprise that such unstable beings could have succeeded in disrupting our world.”

For four years, Freddy was an attaché at the German Embassy in Washington, and then Minister in Belgium and afterwards in Portugal. All Lali says is that his conscience forbade him to serve under National Socialism, so when Hitler came to power in 1933, Freddy resigned from the diplomatic service. Photographs of Nazi leaders were quite enough to give away to Lali what sort of men they were. “None of their faces showed any spiritual quality, distinction or dignity,” and this led to “a sense of horrified surprise that such unstable beings could have succeeded in disrupting our world.” Other Germans had an identical reaction, and Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen was one of them. A neo-Edwardian much like Freddy, he happened one day in 1936 to catch sight of Hitler being driven in an open car. This prompted a rip-roaring passage in his memoir, Diary of a Man in Despair (1947, republished 2013): “So sad, so unutterably insignificant, so misbegotten is this countenance that only thirty years ago, in the darkest days of Kaiser Wilhelm, such a face on an official would have been impossible.” On another occasion, he was present when Hitler made a speech: “As he ranted, he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook.”

The Nazis expropriated Freddy’s newspaper, a loss of wealth he could survive; it was as though he were paying his dues to the lower orders. The Horstmanns moved out to Kerzendorf, a small and pretty village half an hour or so by train from Berlin, where they had an eighteenth-century country house set in a park with classical statues. A great part of Freddy’s collections was on show there or stored in the attics and cellars. Various long-term retainers, one of them called Ida, a loyal but quick-tempered ladies’ maid, saw to it that old-fashioned standards were maintained. Tens of thousands of Germans, among them men as distinguished as Thomas Mann, Bruno Walter, and Sebastian Haffner, the author of Defying Hitler (written 1939, published 2000), drew the obvious conclusion from Hitler’s speeches, public book-burning, boycotts of Jews, and the desultory violence of storm-troopers and emigrated while it was still possible. Freddy was satisfied that he had done nothing wrong and he could still live as he pleased:

We are responsible for our home, we must use our intelligence and courage to keep it. I would rather be killed surrounded by the objects I spent a lifetime collecting than run away like a coward to save my bare existence.

A little later he summed up for Lali the conviction that his decision to see the war out at Kerzendorf would be justified: “Logic and justice always wins.” In reality, logic and justice had no part in Nazism or Communism, both of them artificial constructions designed to enable some to take the possessions, and the lives, of others.

For a short while, Freddy could continue to deceive himself. Marie, otherwise “Missie,” Vassiltchikov was an attractive White Russian princess in her twenties who had fled from Lithuania to Berlin just in time to save herself. Her elder sister Tatiana married Prince Paul Metternich, and her own Berlin Diaries covering the years 1940–45 (published 1988) are like an offprint of the Almanach de Gotha. On Thursday, July 23, 1940, Marie wrote, “Dinner at the Horstmanns to celebrate Freddie’s birthday. For the first time since the Chilean ball we wore long dresses. The conversation centred on gas masks. We do not have any.” Freddy invited her and her sister Tatiana to a concert with Herbert von Karajan conducting, and she took her friend and sometime employer Adam von Trott to the Horstmanns, afterwards happy to be able to comment, “they continue to be as hospitable as ever.” (After the July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler, Trott was executed in prison.)

And then, on September 7, 1943, Missie wrote up the crunch:

As we had feared, Kerzendorf, the Horstmanns’ country place, was badly damaged two nights ago. I sat at the Gersdorffs and listened with Gottfried von Cramm to Fia Henschel’s account of the catastrophe; she was staying there at the time. Fortunately, nobody was killed, but Freddie, who had just finished installing the priceless antiques they had evacuated from their house in Berlin, has lost practically everything.

“Should we stay or should I use all my persuasion to make Freddy leave Kerzendorf?” was the question that Lali then asked herself but could not answer. Every day British bombers came over the house, sometimes two or three times, targeting a nearby factory. Returning to the house after a raid during his absence in Berlin, all Freddy could say to Lali was, “I do not like the way you have arranged the vases. A few forsythia branches in each room are quite enough, more spoil the effect.” He went on to tell her about an Augsburg silver inkstand he had been tempted to buy. At one point as bombs were dropping, he was immersed in a book about eighteenth-century French pavilions, and decided he must have one for himself, Chinese style, with period silver and china.

As the Red Army fought its way west, Kerzendorf filled with fleeing Ukrainians and Poles, French prisoners of war freed from a camp, Wehrmacht deserters who had thrown away their uniforms, a Spanish Falangist, a Romanian mother and her teenage son, and, not least, landowning friends and titled neighbors abandoning estates in Silesia and East Prussia, which in some cases had belonged to the same German family for centuries. The Horstmanns refused all offers to join this unprecedented exodus of millions. Moving into a smaller, unspoiled house, Lali took only books, while Freddy had with him a bag of coffee and four hats from Lock & Co., the London hat-maker, to be worn when things became normal again. Ida, the maid, carried large cooking pots and pans.

The next morning, Freddy rebuked her: “You must not allow yourself to get so upset and disturb me in this thoughtless way. . . . What we are passing through is nothing but a period of transition.”

Remarkably, Nothing for Tears is full of remembered fear but free from self-pity. One particularly poignant instance evokes “a scene of wild disorder; clothes, food, broken luggage, single shoes littered the ground, while half buried under miscellaneous objects a little picture was lying face downward in the middle of the expanse of wet grass. On picking it up I found it to be a drawing by Gian Battista Tiepolo, a present from my father.” Soviet soldiers stole whatever they could, and what they couldn’t steal they smashed. They loafed about, “each proudly wearing four, five or six wrist-watches on their arms, like women displaying diamond bracelets.” At night, these same soldiers, devoid of discipline and usually drunk, would break into houses in and around Kerzendorf in search of women to rape, whether out of feelings of lust or revenge for atrocities committed by German soldiers. The Russians preferred women who tried to fight them off, even if they were grandmothers, rather than those hoping to exchange favors for food. According to one of these determined rapists, “Willing women are unclean.” The sound of splintering glass and cracking wood alerted Lali to one attempted break-in, and she obliged Freddy to put on his clothes and stand guard. The next morning, he rebuked her: “You must not allow yourself to get so upset and disturb me in this thoughtless way. . . . What we are passing through is nothing but a period of transition.”

The Soviets were already transforming their conquered German provinces into East Germany, the late and unlamented ddr, or German Democratic Republic. Property was about to be redistributed, a process that would bring Freddy’s whole way of living to an end. Nothing for Tears captures the new and growing atmosphere of envy and resentment, the dread of anonymous denunciations, and the Horstmanns’ helplessness to do anything about it. The local mayor, a white-haired old man, and farmers in the village had turned Communist in a matter of days. Suddenly a shifty shopkeeper had a photograph of Stalin on the counter. When the secret police came for Freddy, they told Lali that he had nothing to fear, but they put him in one of the former Gestapo concentration camps and there he died of starvation. So much for logic and justice.

Lali portrays Freddy as an inflexible defender of civilization as well as—incompatibly—a dupe who risked his life and hers to no good purpose. Something unworldly, perhaps snobbery, seems to have led him to believe that nothing really bad could happen to people like him with fortunes large enough to assure security. Unlike most Germans telling their story after the war, Lali did not have to cook up some apology for Hitler and could honestly deplore the ruins of Berlin amid which she was living. The Allies each had a zone, and in 1947 she met Tony Marreco, a member of the British Control Commission whose task was to rid Germany of Nazism and fit it for democracy. Operating as a couple, though not married, they settled in Brazil where in 1954 she died in what the obituaries described as “mysterious circumstances,” presumably murdered.

When I was looking for somewhere in London to start married life, a mutual friend let me know that Tony Marreco had a house to sell and was willing to show me around it. Turning up, he was impressively well-dressed and suave. The family came from Portugal, and some forebear had put down roots in Brazil, where apparently “marreco” is a species of native bird. A junior barrister, he had sat in on the cross-examination of Hermann Göring at the Nuremburg war crimes trial. For a week or two, we discussed prices and contracts. Tony was fair and likeable. Others supposedly in the know kept insisting that it was out of the question to buy the house. Was I aware that Tony had been half Lali’s age and had I heard he’d inherited the Horstmann money? Surely gossip and insinuation, all of it, but Lali’s escape from one self-made ordeal only to suffer another is the stuff of classical tragedy.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 41
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